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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Designing for seniors is a lucrative market

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

The Design for an Aging Population program at Sheridan College began following a conversation five years ago between Mary-Jane Carroll and Pat Spadafora. Both women were interested in how the needs of the elderly weren't being addressed in the residential environment.

After a lot of bureaucratic wrangling, their program began as a pilot project and ran during the 2003-2004 academic year at the college's Oakville campus with just 10 students, although they could have accepted 30.

Both Carroll, an interior designer, and Spadafora, a social worker and director of the Sheridan Elder Research Centre, say the program was a success, but have reconsidered the way it was taught and applied to have it in the college's continuing education lineup this fall.

"I think the program was right," Spadafora says. "I think we didn't have the delivery model right."

Online course

That delivery model was a full- time, eight-month course with tuition costing about $4,000. Since it was a post-diploma (post-graduate) program, most working professionals couldn't afford to take 32 weeks off to complete it, Carroll says, so she's looking into having the course taught online in addition to its being on the CE roster. Online, Carroll says, the program can run with as few as 10 or 12 students.

In that first class, program co-ordinator Carroll recalls, she had an industrial engineer, a theatre set designer, several interior designers, and a few architects and architectural technologists. Seven women and three men enrolled, with ages varying widely.

The course was -- and will be -- interdisciplinary in nature, Carroll says. Students learn about the psychology and physiology of the elderly, public policy and how it affects the older adult, designing for an aging population, age-related research and business development. That last subject is no small matter. By 2021, Ontario will be home to three million seniors who will represent a lucrative market for anyone interested in servicing it.

Carroll says the primary aim of the course is to teach design so seniors -- usually described as those 65 and older -- can "age in place"; in other words, stay in their own homes as they get older rather than move to a nursing home.
  • The Design for an Aging Population program at Sheridan College began as a pilot project.
  • The program may be taught part time and online beginning this fall.
  • Applicants will need a diploma or a degree to enrol.
  • By 2021 there will be three million seniors in Ontario.
  • No more than 7% of the elderly in Canada live in nursing homes.

  • "So many things can be done that don't cost lots of money," Spadafora says.

    Some of those things are obvious when you think about them. Take doorknobs, says Marcie Costello, an interior design intern at Katz Group Canada in Mississauga, and a student in the pilot project.

    Simple changes

    Changing the round doorknob to a lever type makes opening doors easier, Costello says, and lowering light switches is a simple but effective accommodation for anyone in a wheelchair. Non-slip floors in rubber or cork are another benefit, and so are wider stairways and corridors.

    Costello says she took the Sheridan course because it was a way for her to make a contribution to the betterment of seniors' lives. But, she continues, her training doesn't just work for the elderly. "Universal design" is good for everyone, Costello says. Eliminating the step at building entrances reduces the likelihood of seniors tripping, she says, and it also lessens the chances of toddlers falling.

    The program at Sheridan was groundbreaking, Costello says, and all of the students felt privileged to take it. But it wasn't without its disappointments.

    She was working on a kitchen design project and went to see a supplier to ask about counters under which a wheelchair could fit. The supplier promptly dismissed her inquiry, Costello remembers, which she attributes to negative societal views on aging.

    That ought to change. As Carroll and Spadafora and Costello, who's just 26, point out everyone will get old in time.

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